Repeat after me: There is no newly discovered hidden code in DNA.

It is a very sad and unfortunate occurrence when newly released research findings are hyped and overstated. This week the University of Washington Office of News & Information released a press release embarrassingly called “Scientists discover double meaning in genetic code“. Since then, the release has been picked up by websites across the globe. In that way, the press release did its job. Unfortunately, the statements within the release along with the title have done a world of harm. I can only hope it was unintended.

The release starts by stating scientists discovered a second code hiding within DNA.

This second code contains information that changes how scientists read the instructions contained in DNA and interpret mutations to make sense of health and disease.

This ‘second code’ will not change anything scientists do regarding studying DNA. This ‘hidden second code’ has been known and studied for decades.

Since the genetic code was deciphered in the 1960s, scientists have assumed that it was used exclusively to write information about proteins. UW scientists were stunned to discover that genomes use the genetic code to write two separate languages. One describes how proteins are made, and the other instructs the cell on how genes are controlled. One language is written on top of the other, which is why the second language remained hidden for so long.

Let me rewrite this paragraph to make it factual:

Since the genetic code was deciphered in the 1950s, scientists have continued to find additional layers of complexity in the regulation of how genes are transcribed to make proteins. The current study from UW scientists have added additional knowledge to this growing field.

This is the most unfortunate part:

“For over 40 years we have assumed that DNA changes affecting the genetic code solely impact how proteins are made,” said Stamatoyannopoulos. “Now we know that this basic assumption about reading the human genome missed half of the picture. These new findings highlight that DNA is an incredibly powerful information storage device, which nature has fully exploited in unexpected ways.”

This release was written by writers in a news department as a marketing piece, but when the scientist also grossly exaggerates the findings, it is very sad. Like Emily Willingham said in Forbes, “I can only hope that Stamatoyanopoulos didn’t really say that”. Scientists have not made any such assumption and have decades of evidence to the contrary.

The study shows that changes in the DNA sequence can have two-fold consequences upon the protein made from it. It can change the amino acid sequence of the protein and change which proteins bind that help transcribe the DNA into the RNA used to create the protein. This is not new. The finding that made this study worth of the prestige of publishing into Science is the frequency of the DNA code that is used to determine which proteins bind to the DNA to create the right form of the protein. These proteins, known as transcription factors, have been known for decades and bind to a number of DNA sequences to ensure the cell creates the exact protein needed.

As is common in press releases, the last part of the piece tries to explain DNA and the language of genes. In this aspect, the release does an even worse job:

The genetic code uses a 64-letter alphabet called codons.

The genetic code uses 64 different combinations of nucleotide sets of three, called codons; most of which code for one of the twenty amino acids needed to make a protein.

I could keep going, but I’m exhausted by trying to set the record straight.

4 thoughts on “Repeat after me: There is no newly discovered hidden code in DNA.”

  1. I think this example further demonstrates the benefit of using science writers with a science background. It may take us longer to write (because we are reading all the references and fact checking continuously) but at least the chance for gross overstatements and mistakes are minimized. (BTW, did you read the comments left on that press release? Wow, someone really needs to moderate or close their site to comments…)

    1. Yeah, the comments are crazy, but it is Seattle. This lab and the UW writer have a history of stories like this in relation to the ENCODE project, but this one takes the cake.

  2. thank you for this comment. I agree 100%. As a scientist, I find these “publications” very frustrating. Seems like you need to overstate your research now to get published, recognized and/or even funded… if you choose this career by pure passion (like I did) and do honest research, good luck…

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